By JEFF PICKELL
(Before I begin this week’s column, I should tell you that, when I was interviewing for my job here at the Observer, David suggested his second email to me that I might have a tendency toward wordiness. This was after I sent him a way-too-long 4,000 word description of my anthropology minor that I could’ve easily cut down to a way-too-long 2,000 word description.
And he was right. I am the king of wordiness. But, of late I’ve been trying to cut back on my logorrhea. (To make this column suitable for public consumption, I should pass on that logorrhea is, to paraphrase Webster, pathologically excessive wordiness.
In fact, it’s not rare that I see “make suitable for public consumption” next to one of my 50-word single sentence paragraphs. In fact, it’s not rare for Colleen and Kim to cross out “in fact” when it appears in my rough drafts. In fact, they insist I remove the phrase from my lexicon.
A lexicon, by the way, is basically one’s vocabulary.
“Why didn’t he just use the word ‘vocabulary’ in the first place?” I’m sure you’re asking.
You see, as a trained English major, it’s not my job to say what I actually mean. It’s not my job to say anything, in fact. That’s the secret of the academic study of literature—professors get paid to produce articles about nothing that nobody reads and they rear their students to do the same.
The problem is, there aren’t enough professorships to go around, so most English majors end up at small town newspapers writing articles that make editors slap their heads in frustration and wonder why they got into the business in the first place.
But you have to give me credit; I’ve come a long way. For proof, here’s a passage I wrote in college about a character in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!:
“Though slavery has been abolished, Wash, the white man, still unconsciously perpetuates the master-slave, superior-inferior, relationship established before the advent of the war. And he does this, apparently, for no other reason than that he might restore the master, who currently is no greater or richer than he, back to the position he would have before the fall of slavery, and thus further subordinate himself.”
My professor responded to my painstakingly-formulated nonsensical claim with a margin note to the effect of “not really.” To this day, I don’t know whether he was agreeing or disagreeing with me. He also remarked that the paper was “well-written” and either “neatly argued” or “nerdly” argued—I can’t really read his handwriting. But I got an A-minus, which I think is pretty good for a paper on a 300-page book that only has four sentences.
Over the 40 hours I spent writing it, about 50,000 children died in Africa.
But who wants to be a spoilsport and bring all that nastiness up when we could be writing papers about Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which asks the profound question: “Roguenaar Loudbrags, that soddy old samph! How high is vuile, var?”
James Joyce’s three novels—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake—are now regarded as three huge acts of charity. They have created jobs for thousands upon thousands of English professors who otherwise would have to engage in worthwhile behavior for a living.
Am I coming off as a tad hostile toward academic English studies? Good. There are useful kinds of writing. Journalism is useful. Book and movie reviews are useful. Novels and short stories are useful. But writing about what a book is about, often in such haughty and archaic prose that the writing itself is indecipherable? Please.
After all, in his Imaginations, William Carlos Williams wrote, “Prose, relieved of extraneous, unrelated values must return to its only purpose; to clarity to enlighten the understanding.”
It’s a journalist’s job to clarity to enlighten the understanding—I just didn’t get it when I started here. I was still stuck in my illusory microcosm of literary cosmopolitanism, preoccupied with pastoral hyperbole, wandering amongst the disjunct adverbial clauses that lolled, withering forth, as a seaflower, pale as a child’s belly, in the vast and gelatin ocean of my imagination.
Which is to say, I was still obsessed with high falutin’ words and stupid gimmicks. Anyway, on with the column.))
I hate Ben Affleck.– June 28, 2006